The Purpose of Organizations

20151104_145251In the last post I noted what I think is a really big and ugly problem that has come from anthropomorphizing organizations. That big and ugly problem being that we consider the purpose of organizations and people to be the same.  If you push people to explain what that same purpose is they will most often say ‘survival’ is the core or fundamental purpose of both people and organizations.  Ask where this idea comes from and you often will get some comment on Darwin and/or the idea of survival of the fittest.  Ask what is meant by survival, especially in terms of organizations and things can go almost anywhere.  And when things go almost anywhere you really are almost nowhere. What this means then is that there are actually very few meaningful conversations in organizations about the fundamental purpose of an organization, let alone people. The term ‘survival’ is mentioned and it is assumed everyone is in agreement and understanding is shared.

In that post I also noted that I think the fundamental purpose of organizations and people is very different; there is a big gap in meaning and behavior and this gap needs to be recognized. I defined purpose as a fundamental driver of meaning and behavior. It was stated that:

  1. The purpose of an organization is to be a viable economic entity.
  2. The purpose of a person is to express identity.

Let’s start with organizations.  By viable economic entity I am being very, very basic.  I mean the ability of the organization to meet payroll. I think it is accurate to say that no matter what kind of organization it is, if it can’t pay people those people go somewhere else. No matter how amazing that organization is or what it actually does. And as mentioned in the last post, without people nothing else matters, nothing else even exists in an organization.

If an organization can meet payroll then there is the possibility of profit, the possibility of delivering on its mission, the possibility of social responsibility, the possibility of shareholder value and all the ‘other things’ organizations can do. It is these ‘other things’ that are the anywhere  that discussion about the fundamental purpose of organizations goes to.  And it is right here that we get lost and where OD in particular is disturbingly lost.

Ask the OD world what the purpose of an organization is and there is a really good chance you will get a psychologically oriented response, probably even a depth psychology perspective. Something to do with meaning, individual purpose, alignment with a higher purpose. While this response may have a well-intentioned, even noble origin, it is simply not what the left loop, the fundamental left loop, the driver of meaning and behavior IS in organizations.

If you took up the challenge from the last post and reflected on the interactions you experience regularly within your organization, my guess is that the pattern of interactions has far more to do with the organization being economically viable, than anything else. Of course if you did take up that challenge it is highly probable that you are in an organization that has met the basic definition of economically viable noted above (meeting payroll) so some additional purpose(s) of your organization will be at play as well. These may be things like vision, mission, strategy, maximizing profit and so on.

Nevertheless, whatever those purposes are they are sitting on a foundation of economic viability. That foundation is the purpose of organizations. Your organization likely has a complicated and convoluted definition of economic viability since it has exceeded the basic threshold. As soon as that viability is challenged or threatened in any way, the response will be an economic one, and any and all those psychologically based definitions of purpose espoused by the OD world are first constrained, then compromised and finally abandoned

This is not a moral criticism of organizations. It is the left loop of every organization in existence. For companies with shareholders this left loop even has legal precedent in the Dodge vs Ford ruling in 1919. It is simply what the purpose of organizations is.

The problems emerge when we think and act like this purpose is the same for people; for you and for me. The next post will look at the purpose of people.


The Purpose of Organizations vs. People

20151104_145251The world, not just the world of OD has a consistent and continuous habit of anthropomorphizing; defining and understanding a thing as if it were human, or having human characteristics.  The OD world does this all the time with things like the organization itself, culture, purpose, change, strategy and more. The organization, or aspects of it is treated like a giant individual person, with selected characteristics of a human being.

A practical benefit to this habit is that it makes it easier to actually talk about something like an organization.  Our words simply go together better when we do this.  I will be doing this later in this post and ongoing.

In terms of understanding organizations however, this habit is primarily helpful as a metaphor and unfortunately we seem to have all too often lost the metaphor.  We actually talk and think of organizations as living entities in their own right. However, I do not know of any organization that will exist if the people leave. If the people leave you just have buildings, equipment, computers and other ‘things’ just hanging around waiting to decompose. There is no culture, no change, no purpose. This means all these ‘things’ are a result of people, and more specifically, people interacting.

Organizations are only ‘alive’ because of the people who make them up.  For example culture is not a thing to be found, it is the repetitive patterns of interaction between people that has become stable over time. Culture in an organization is the left loop of people who hang out doing things under the same company name.

Interaction Model

Yet our habit, our pattern of interaction, our left loop in this regard has come to see organizations as if they were people, as if culture can be found somewhere, as if strategy  is a thing to be aligned with, as if change was something like changing the oil in our cars.

If you want to change culture, change strategy, even just change anything, you change interactions, nothing else.  If you want to understand an organization to some extent you try and understand the left loop, the stable patterns of interactions that constantly go on day after day.

One of the areas that our habit of anthropomorphizing organizations causes real problems is the idea of purpose. This is one of those things that brings the ferocious out in me no matter how hard I try to balance it with the gentle!

By anthropomorphizing organizations we have come to think that the purpose of organizations is the same purpose that people have.  By purpose I mean a fundamental driver of meaning and behavior.

I believe this perspective causes more shame, blame and guilt than almost any other typical and current perspective in how we understand organizational life.

And the OD world overwhelmingly supports this perspective.

I think there is a basic difference between the purpose of an organization and the purpose of a person.

  1. The purpose of an organization is to be a viable economic entity.
  2. The purpose of a person is to express identity.

I am going to go into more depth on what I mean by these in the next couple of posts but for now, the primary point I want to surface is that I think there is a huge gap between these two purposes. When we do not recognize this gap, when we treat and understand organizations as people, we create a reaction, in people, that is characterized by feelings and behavior related to shame, blame and guilt and all the defensive, aggressive and problematic responses that come with these feelings and behaviors.

Before we go into more depth in the next posts I would ask that you just reflect on those two purposes noted above. For now I would ask that you suspend judgement on their ‘correctness’ and just think about them in terms of the interactions you have and experience in your organization and outside your organization.  Is there a difference? If so, what is that difference?  What is your purpose?  Is it closer to being a viable economic entity or expressing identity?

Let’s just see what emerges.

OD – Psychology, Structure and the Need for Balance

20151104_145251In the last post I said it was the approach to OD that needed to change. That approach is psychological in nature and focuses on structure and design of organizations. To be more precise, the change is more a balancing of these two approaches. As approaches to OD they have real value. When these approaches are the only way we approach OD then I think we do have a problem. I would say that this approach is mostly unquestioned in OD circles. And if you dare to question it you will be quickly criticized.

If you use the word balance then there must be things opposite from what is to be balanced; something considerably different. Something on the other side of the scale.

The balancing perspective of psychology is social construction. The balancing perspective of structure is interaction.

As I was preparing to get back to writing these posts I looked back at a lot of blog posts I had written on the topic and thought that some of these simply needed to be used again, perhaps with a bit of editing, mainly for context. To illustrate the above perspective, below is a post from 2009; very relevant to this topic in 2016.  I have been writing posts for over 10 years now; this post is the 3rd most read post during that time. I have included responses. Edits and additions are in blue. Please continue on through the comments for the conclusion of this post.


Two weeks ago my colleague and I attended and presented at the OD Network conference.  It was an interesting time with lots of conversation, chances to meet new and interesting people and then to reflect on the experience and see what emerged.

Perhaps the first thing that stands out for me was that the people who I met there and conversed with were really good people.  Everyone seemed to be very sincere in their efforts to make a positive difference in the work they did and were at the conference to learn new things and meet new people that would help them in their work.  It is nice to be with a group of people where you sense that sincerity alongside high levels of competence.

The second thing that emerged for me was that the primary and often unquestioned method by which OD practitioners look to help their clients was to assist them go ‘inside and deeper’ ( a psychological approach).  By this I mean to look inside oneself or one’s organization and try and go deeper inside until some core truth or meaning is found and then by bringing forth that deeper truth into the world, improvement could be made.  This might be referred to as true vision, who you really are, deeper meaning, core self, or some other manifestation that resides within us to be found if we go deep enough.

This models the psychotherapeutic (a version of psychological) method and while this method can add value it struck me as the conference moved on how dominant this viewpoint and approach was and how little it was questioned let alone the investigation of alternative methods.  In fact I would surmise that a large percentage of the attendees at the conference have never considered or been exposed to other methods of making sense of the work world.  They have certainly seen a variety of ways of approaching the ‘inner and deeper’ approach (many illustrated at the conference) but not often exposed to a fundamentally different perspective.

As an example I was with a group of about 15 where the word psychotherapeutic was used and everyone nodded in agreement of some understanding what was meant by that.  The word social construction was then used a little later and only one person knew what was meant by that, and they were an academic studying the subject.  Intrigued, I then experimented in the same way with two other groups with almost identical results.

Our presentation was on complex responsive processes; the work of Ralph Stacey and colleagues which has a solid grounding in social constructionist thinking, or basically the ‘outward and broader’ view of the world and people in it.  In contrast to psychotherapeutic thinking, social construction posits that we exist and develop in a world that is social and this social process is primary.  It is not exclusive of inner and deeper approaches but would say that even if discoveries were made by going inner and deeper those findings came into being by a social process and do not gain meaning until played out in a social context. If you click on these links the idea of interaction as balancing systems thinking (structure and design of organizations) is what our presentation was focused on. Probably one of the most challenging and rewarding ‘presentations’ I have ever done. This was also the first big ‘public’ presentation of our interaction model after a couple of years working with it on our own. Since then it has become the foundation of how we understand and work with organizations. Really how we understand this crazy world of ours.

I believe it is time for the OD world to be much more inclusive of social approaches to development and change.  At a very practical level it matches what is actually happening in the world of our clients.  They interact in a social process continually and if we engage that process we can work within it, not outside of it which is what the psychotherapeutic process requires.  Too often the OD world asks, even demands that the work world slow down and go inner and deeper.  Perhaps it is time to match the pace of the world and go outward and broader.

I have no doubt that the people I met at the conference have the capacity to do this.  They were smart, awesome people.  The theme for the conference was Now is Our Time.  I would agree.  Now is our time to move outward from the constraints of the psychotherapeutic model and seriously look to additional ways of adding value.


  1. Janet November 6, 2009, 1:33 pm

    Excellent Article. I’m sharing it with some of my OD/Change Leader type friends.


  2. Rachel Lyn Rumson November 6, 2009, 2:41 pm

    Great observation and I totally agree with your assertion that meaning making is primary a social process. Nice to know that there are more social constructionists “in the room”.

    Makes me wonder about the social context of OD, specifically American OD. How does the culture context we are in, which values individualism and capitalism, shape the ways of knowing in our field and the ways of practicing?



  3. Joseph Logan November 6, 2009, 4:07 pm

    Excellent points. OD has had a troubling tendency to value technique over context, with the unfortunate result of losing trust within client systems. Psychotherapeutic approaches in particular are troubling because clients don’t necessarily want or need them–it isn’t always necessary to go deep in the helping relationship–and because OD practitioners without the proper training and accreditation in intrapsychic counseling are unqualified to practice it. Despite using the term “organization development”, I have noticed that a great many OD practitioners work almost exclusively at the individual, interpersonal, and group levels. The organizational level and its context deserve serious contemplation and inclusion in OD engagements.


  4. Michael Lewin-Papanek November 10, 2009, 3:16 pm

    Thanks Tom for a great perspective.

    I also share your firm’s belief that the social system is critical and is where both positive change and barriers to change must be discovered and addressed. I see this as clearly linked to the Lewinian concept of Field Theory and a Gestalt approach vs. a more Freudian psychotherapeutic method.

    It is an old adage in OD and CM that “culture eats change for lunch”, yet rather than address the social system directly, much of OD is focused on 1:1 (“coaching”) or small team interaction, in part b/c this is seen as a more manageable and measurable area. But, to use another old OD metaphor, we may be looking under the lamp post just b/c the light is better, rather than searching in the dark where the real solution might be.

    Sorry I missed your session at ODN and thanks for making your materials available on-line.



  5. Rachel Lyn Rumson April 17, 2010, 2:09 am

    Applause. I appreciate this perspective and the comments. I could not agree more that both, the social constructionist perspective is useful and that organizations, even regions or communities, need to have a contextual approach to change. Indeed, such systemic thinking might bring our clients into intentional relationship with the economies in which they are rooted leading to more practical approaches to sustainability, performance and less myopic goals.

    Sorry, that I did not meet you in Seattle.

2016 – I’m not so sure we have made a lot of progress since 2009 in the field of OD. Perhaps this just goes to show that a content focused event (see the Learning and Development posts) doesn’t change the world very effectively 🙂

But let’s keep trying. We now have blog posts to do this, more of an extended process of interaction. We can still change the world!

We need to start from something very basic however. The fundamental difference of purpose between organizations and people. Not often looked at but that will be the next post. It kind of changes everything 🙂 !

OUCH! Organization Development

20151104_145251My plan was a summer break from writing the OUCH! posts. And now here it is December and I’m finally writing a new post! I’m not too sure why summer stretched into fall and then winter but I have a sense some of the delay had to do with knowing that I was going to be writing posts on organization development. The topic is close to home, and while it is an area I have been focusing on for the better part of 30 years, I also think organization development as it is primarily practiced now is deeply flawed. I wasn’t clear how to address a topic that I am intimately involved with and at times simply makes me want to scream in frustration!

I’m still not clear but it seemed clarity was not forthcoming so I finally decided to just start writing and see what emerged. Based on the posts dealing with strategy I probably should have realized this was the best approach a long time ago! Our left loops are pretty strong and ubiquitous it seems when it comes to wanting certainty (clarity in this case)!

One of the things that kind of got me over the hurdle of writing these posts was a radio interview with Garrison Keillor the creator of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion which ran from 1974 – 2016 when he decided not to do it anymore. I don’t know a lot about Garrison Keillor or the show but in the interviewer’s introduction of Keillor he used a term to describe Keillor’s approach to writing that stuck with me. The term was ‘ferociously gentle’. I like the combination of those seemingly opposing terms.

Quite often when I would write, or talk about organization development the screams of frustration would be forefront; perhaps representing the term ferocious. And yet when I work in the field, with colleagues or associates the screams of frustration are not at the forefront. Most people I have interacted with in the area of organization development are genuinely trying to make their organizations ‘better’, for everyone involved and grapple with a definition of ‘better’ that is often not aligned with the rest of what the organization needs or wants to do. It is this experience that brings the term gentle to the forefront.

I do believe those of us in organization development need to seriously question what we are doing. I believe that what we are doing simply has to change if we want to deliver on the definitions of ‘better’ that I hear so often. If not, I believe we will continue to contribute to the shame, blame and guilt pattern of interactions that we say needs to be changed.  Our good intentions are not sufficient. We need to apply the strengths and skills we have very differently. We need to be better. I believe that those I have worked with in this field can do this. And that we will all need to be ferociously gentle as we do.

So off we go!

In order to consider and write about organization development it is necessary to define what organization development is.

Unfortunately there does not seem to be a working definition to be found, in OD circles anyway! Post a question in a LinkedIn group dealing with OD asking what the definition of OD is and a couple of hundred responses later you will be no closer to a definition. Here is a link to a video titled What Is Organization Development? by the Organization Development Network. You would likely think they would have a definition given their focus and membership is involved with the topic all the time. My guess is that if you watch this 13 minute video you will be no closer to a definition of what organization development is. And the framework that is hinted at won’t help you either.

The Wikipedia definition of OD is:

Organization development (OD) is the study of successful organizational change and performance.

The problem with this definition (besides the singular focus on study vs application of that study!) is that everyone in an organization would be an OD person! Everyone is involved in change and performance in some way!

The telling part about OD history is that it originated as a discipline in the 1930’s when psychologists noted a connection between organizational structure and design and behavior. From these beginnings the field and practice has exploded, never losing these fundamental roots; those being a psychological approach and a focus on organization structure and design affecting behavior.

So while the definition above would include everyone in an organization, the psychological and structural approach to that definition enabled OD to become a separate entity. Not everyone was an OD person, not because of what OD was, but by the way you went about doing that definition.  Kind of sneaky really and quite effective at keeping the discipline alive and well today.

I believe it is this approach to OD that needs to change; where we need to be ferocious in our critique of what we do as OD practitioners and to make fundamental shifts.

To this end, the definition I am using for organization development in these posts is quite similar to the one above:

Organization development is the study of and interactions associated with movement toward successful change and performance.

Everyone IS focused on OD in an organization. OD ‘people’ or departments study (or should be) the interactions leading to successful change and performance more than others.

The definition above works for these posts. It also leads to the need for so much more defining and grappling with meaning. That’s where we can all be both ferocious and gentle as we work to apply the definition above to the topic of OD itself.